Chuồng Cọp (Vietnam)
|Chuồng Cọp 🇻🇳|
|Definition: Illegal extensions of apartment buildings that infringe on public space|
|Keywords: Vietnam – Southeast Asia – Urban – Making do – Improvisation – Housing-estate|
|Clusters: Informal dwelling – Survival|
|Author: Francisco García Moro|
|Affiliation: Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain|
By Francisco García Moro, Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain
|Chuồng Cọp, or ‘Tiger Cage’ is a casual term in Hanoi to denote illegal extensions added to apartment buildings, thus creating an exuberant streetscape with its own idiosyncrasy and identity. These extensions originate in the Khu thập thể neighbourhoods in Hanoi (KTT), where in the period of 1954-85 ʻcommunal dormitoriesʼ were built to accommodate the inflow of rural workers relocating to the city. To avoid commuting, these complexes were put in proximity to industrial estates where labour was needed, such as Thượng Đình, Minh Khai or Vĩnh Tuy in the Southwest belt of Hanoi. Both were, until then, peripheral areas dotted by small communal villages (Phuong 2011). These housing blocks were built with the assistance of Soviet architects (Logan 2000). They resembled Khrushchevka microrayons, a minimalist architectural style, named after Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union. He advocated modest but individual living, in opposition to the communal flats and Stalinist classicist architecture (Reid, 2006). Housing complexes like Kim Liên were built using concrete precast panels on the basis of technology imported from the USSR (Pennec & Ng 2009). In accordance with the Soviet planning guidelines, new neighbourhoods where conceived as autonomous communities, equipped with amenities like schools and markets, and supervised by the phường (ward) officers. The design and supervision of KTT housing estates was taken over by Vietnamese architects from 1970s (Schenk 2013).|
With the launch of Đổi Mới economic reforms in 1985, the Vietnamese government acknowledged that the Khu thập thể housing model was no longer capable of accommodating the migrants moving to Hanoi (Tran 2016). Economic development was prioritized over the strict land law enforcement, implicitly acknowledging that the existing regulations were not adaptive enough to respond to the challenges of a fast changing society. By 2007, the population of Hanoi had reached 3.2 million inhabitants. The threefold increase from one million in 1967 was mainly as a result of the flow of rural migrants into the city (Ledent 2002). Official attitudes became more accommodating of the economic interests and private property (Anh 2017), often resulting in turning a blind eye to the illegal constructions and informal settlements of migrants (Chen 2015). This tolerance gave rise to ‘tube houses’ (Nhà ống’ Phố Cổ), narrow but verticalized structures with several floors on small plots of land.
Since the late 1980s, KTT neighbourhoods were privatised and subjected to intense re-adaptation process. Apartments where either demolished or sold to tenants trough cooperatives (Cerise & Shannon 2010). Privatized properties were then extended individually in disorderly manner trough the addition of apparently shabby structures attached to the facades, sarcastically named ʻTiger Cagesʼ (Tran 2016). The common areas on the ground floor were encroached by multiple retail stalls, cafes, beauty salons and all sorts of repair shops. The top floors expanded sideways into all directions. The resulting amalgamation of structures that fill spaces between existing blocks is known as xây chen (Xia 2015).
The Japan International Cooperation Agency has estimated that up to 65 percent of housing stock built between 1975 and 2009 in Hanoi lacked legal permits (2014), which implies that approximately 80 percent of housing transactions remained unregistered and within the informal economy. The emergence of these apparently chaotic constructions was not accidental. It was made possible by a tacit social contract between stakeholders (Geertman 2007). This social agreement consisted of, on the one hand, a precarious but sustained equilibrium among apartment owners who had benefited from the opportunity to develop their property, and on the other, ward officials, who had turned a blind eye on the unauthorized developments (Quinn 2014). Guided by unwritten rules and common understandings that the encroachment should not surpass certain limits, the property owners were careful not to create an open challenge to the city authorities and stay under the radar. Dimensions and configurations of each individual apartment thus reflected a compromisebetween the government’s need to assert its effective authority, the agreement among neighbours and the owner’s own status and capacity.
A Chuồng Cọp comes in a variety of forms and functions. Its actual configuration depends on the structural features of the building, resulting from a tension between formal constraints and informal wants. A tiger cage may range from a simple balcony equipped with some extra space for flowerpots and laundry, to full liveable compartments, stretching out up to 3 meters from the original façade. These box-like structures are held together by a reinforced steel bar and the floor slabs are supported by steel frames. Windows use scraps of standard prefabricated material. Outer surfaces often made of corrugated sheets, but they can also be made of brickwork or wicker lattice supported by a wire mesh – a technique with a local look. It is not uncommon to see further ventures – ‘daughter’ extensions of previous extensions – that ultimately endanger the building’s stability and push the volume of the building to its limit due to a lack of formal control over the load that a Chuồng Cọp may add to an existing structure. Window-based extensions block evacuation in case of fire, while the ground floor encroachments make access of emergency vehicles difficult. Unregulated drilling and fixturesundermine the joints of the prefabricated concrete walls and create water leaks contribute to further decay (Anh 2017).
In more prosperous KTTs in good locations, extensions feature lavish interiors and fine furnishings. However, their exterior appearance remains functional, with still rare concessions to aesthetics. This may be due to a combination of an extremely pragmatic sense in habitation standards seen in most Asian cities (for the case of Hong Kong see Wolf, Baker, & Young 2005) and the tendency to avoid flaunting excessive wealth within small-scale communities. Nowadays, KTTs such as Kim Liên or Giảng Võ have evolved into dynamic neighbourhoods that house multiple social groups and flourishing small businesses. In spite of persisting safety concerns, the tiger cages of Hanoi have become a testimony of inventive spirit, entrepreneurship and resilience.
Vietnamese government has attempted to conceal these informal dwelling practices as embarrassing evidence of the shortcomings of Hanoi’s urban policies. Recently however, the state media has re-appraised their status by recognizing them as monuments of the early economic reforms with environmental and cultural value. In 2017, Nhân Dân, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Vietnam, featured an interview with the Uruguayan economist Martin Rama who praised the community spirit of these neighbourhoods, their values and called for their preservation and upgrade (Nhân Dân, 2017). The collective ‘Arts build communities’ founded by artist Tạ Thu Hương, used the tiger cages as canvases for the display of typical Hanoise imagery (‘Báo Xây Dựng’, 2018) in a similar fashion to acclaimed historic districts in the region, such as Penang, Songkla or Melacca. Exhibitions like ‘8M2’ and ‘Thay hình đổi mặt’ (‘Changing faces’) by artist Nguyễn Thế Sơn (Nguyễn, 2019) set up to record and celebrate these neighbourhoods of informal architecture before their disappearance leaves room for modern private developments.
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